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How to Say Sorry: The 6 Ingredients of a Sincere Apology in a Relationship
  • Name a couple who doesn’t argue. A myth, right? Arguments – whether big or small – are part of any relationship. Even if we try to lessen them (especially the petty ones!), there are instances when we can’t help but raise our voices and say things in the heat of the moment. Once you’ve calmed down, who apologizes first? And when you say sorry, do you mean it or do you simply say it so you can move on?

    In some relationships, there are those who wouldn’t budge until the other party apologizes first. Oftentimes, pride gets in the way, and many find it difficult to admit they’ve done something wrong. In a podcast uploaded on Greater Good Magazine, psychology professor Dacher Keltner and his guests discussed the importance of saying sorry in a relationship.

    “So no matter how in love we are in our relationships, how hard we work at them, or how close we feel, part of intimate life is having conflict, and occasionally hurting people…one of the really important things we can do to maintain the quality of intimate bonds is to say we’re sorry, to make effective apologies,” Keltner shares.

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    You might be asking yourself, what makes up an effective apology? A research done by professors from different universities reveal that there are six components to an effective apology.

    Beth Polin, a professor at Eastern Kentucky University and one of the researchers behind the study says, “First, an expression of regret. The second is an explanation – just a statement for which the reasons for the offenses are described to the victim. The third is an acknowledgement of responsibility. The fourth is a statement in which the violator expresses their promise not to repeat the offense. Fifth is an offer of repair. And the sixth is a request for forgiveness.”


    The truth is, it’s never easy to swallow our pride, admit our mistakes, and ask for forgiveness. Polin notes that “offering what we term to be an effective apology is much simpler than having to address a failed personal relationship, a failed business relationship, because we just did not want to work through the awkward moments of apologizing.”

    How to say sorry

    If you’re finding it difficult to say sorry to your husband, UC Berkeley's Greater Good in Action, a website that collects "research-based methods for a happier, more meaningful life," shares a guide how you can make an effective apology.

    Acknowledge the offense

    In the same podcast, one of Keltner’s guests noted the hardest part for her was acknowledging the offense. By admitting to what she did wrong, the guest realized that owning up to it takes courage and strength. “If you’re in a situation where you cannot include all six components, we found that the acknowledgement of responsibility is greatly important to a victim who’s had trust broken...So if you can only make one statement, make it be some kind of acknowledgement of responsibility,” Polin explains.

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    To do this, you need to recognize who was responsible, who was harmed, and state the nature of the offense. Being specific is key. Greater Good in Action states these examples: instead of saying “mistakes were made,” say “I made a mistake.” It’s also important that you identify the offense made — did you make joke or did you say a hurtful remark?

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    Explain yourself

    After recognizing what you did wrong, the step-by-step guide notes that it’s also beneficial if you will explain the offense to let the person know that it won’t happen again and you didn’t plan on hurting him. “Explanation that sound like excuses or blame the victim [the one who was offended] tend to be counterproductive. It’s better to say, ‘There’s no excuse for my behavior’ than to offer a shallow defense,” the guide states.

    Show regret or remorse

    Are you really sorry for what happened or are you simply apologizing to get it over and done with? Some look at apologizing as a form of weakness or defeat but Greater Good in Action says, “Expressing these feelings communicates that you recognize and regret the suffering you caused.”

    After acknowledging what you’ve done, you need to take full responsibility of what happened and show regret. You don’t need to see it as a weakness. One of Keltner’s guests, Kristin Meinzer of By the Book podcast, says, “I don’t see apologizing as a way of giving up. I see it as a way of getting closer to your partner. It’s a way of saying, ‘I don’t want to hurt you. And I know I probably did, and I feel horrible about it.’ And that’s an act of kindness, it’s not an act of giving up.”

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    Make amends

    How do you move forward? Do you simply forgive and forget? “A good apology should include efforts to repair the damage done. When considering how to best make amends, be sure to ask the offended person what would mean the most to them, rather than simply doing something to relieve your own feelings of guilt,” the guide explains.


    A follow-through is important — not just to show how sorry you are, but also to let the other person know that you’ve learned something from the experience. Apologizing doesn’t just help a person grow. You are learning more about each other as you go through life together.

    Listen to Dacher Keltner’s podcast here. To go through the step-by-step guide on your own, click here.

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